Archive for Citizen Kane

It’s Later Than You Think

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2018 by dcairns

Continuing to explore Irving Reis’s work. The 1940 melo ONE CROWDED NIGHT takes place in an auto farm — my favourite venue! Think HEAT LIGHTNING and THE PETRIFIED FOREST and James M. Cain’s classic short story The Baby in the Icebox. A liminal space that’s gas station, diner and motel all in one. A place of potential drama. It spends most of its runtime stacking subplots atop one another, a game of narrative Buckaroo that’s not as interesting to watch as it must have been to execute, but when the climax is triggered and everything collapses and collides, it’s terribly exciting.

 

There’s plenty evidence the movie was intended to take its title from the prominently and regularly featured sundial constructed from rocks in the dustbowl location — the eventual choice seems designed to alibi the huge scaffolding of wild coincidence upon which the movie is assembled. At this auto farm we have the relatives of a convict, falsely jailed as a getaway driver (he was at gunpoint); then the convict arrives, having broken out, he’s determined to catch the heisters and clear his name; the heisters are also present, in another cabin; so are two detectives, escorting a soldier who went AWOL to see his pregnant wife; so is the wife, who fainted during her bus’s rest stop; so is a defrocked doctor, now running a medicine show; so is the moll of a heister’s associate, now working as the cook. And the convict’s wife is recognized by fellow residents of Duluth (we’re in Arizona) who are Just Passing Through.

Since it’s obvious how these characters are intended to intersect, interest comes from a few neat tricks by Reis (and a few daft ones) and from the unstarry cast. JM Kerrigan as the quack gets a prominent credit, presumably because he had just been in GONE WITH THE WIND. His whole schtick screams “WC Fields was unavailable!” Anne Revere, with her beautiful cliff-face face (Precipice Woman) and hubbie Paul Guilfoyle with his ugly-beautiful loser puss. Gale Storm, a silly stage name appended to a cute teenager. And Harry Shannon, physically unrecognizable as Charles Foster Kane’s future father, but instantly familiar due to that great, muffled voice (like somebody pumped his sinuses full of cotton wool until the whole back of his face was stuffed.

“That’s the train with all the lights on it.”

Though it opens with a striking (and highly atypical for 1940) zoom shot, the movie’s best flourish is saved for the climactic shootout, where one guy falls down, shot, BANG! and SLAP! a newborn is welcomed into the world. Nature balance itself, with a little help from dialectical montage.

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Up, skirt

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2018 by dcairns

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

Bogle’s Yearning

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2017 by dcairns

If Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX dramatise the sufferings of Sisyphus (that bloke condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity), W.C. Fields in IT’S A GIFT is comedy’s premier Tantalus, the chap tied up in the afterlife with food and drink perennially out of reach. Throughout this film, Fields strives to shave, eat, run a grocery store, sleep, win just one argument with his wife, control his son, stop his daughter crying, and start his car. It’s the comedy of frustration elevated to such an agonized pitch that the audience may feel inclined to gnaw its own limbs off to escape. Fortunately, it’s also very, very funny. I was sore afterwards from laughing.

A few stray observations.

Lots of Scottish references. Fields uses the name Charles Bogle to sign the story, and there are characters called Abernathy and Muckle. My theory is that Fields had a soft spot for Scotland, having first tasted whisky in Edinburgh while touring.

I first encountered this film when John Cleese showed the Mr. Muckle scene on a discussion show. This was probably soon after THE LIFE OF BRIAN so Cleese had become a kind of spokesman/counsel for the defence for edgy comedy. He said Fields had created the scene after a friend bet him he couldn’t make comedy about a blind person. “And he did something very clever: he made the blind man a THREAT.” So we’re not made serious by sympathy, and he don’t feel guilty for laughing at a disability.

My young self didn’t actually find the film clip funny at all. I wasn’t offended, but I was frustrated — Fields isn’t just an innocent victim in this, he’s a terribly incompetent grocer. So what I saw was a lot of painfully inevitable misfortune which made me itch to climb into the television and sort everyone out. Also, incredible as it seems now, Fields’ timing and delivery struck me as slack and shapeless. Of course, I was struggling to get to grips with his amazing naturalism, which incorporates hesitations, repetitions, sentences that fizzle out unfinished, and various other qualities of human speech rarely encountered in thirties comedy (never in the Marx Bros, for instance — and I loved the Marx Bros then as now). It would take me more than a three-minute clip to get in synch with Fields.

Fields’ young hellion of a son is played by Tom Bupp, brother of Sonny Bupp, who played Charles Foster Kane III, Orson Welles’ son in CITIZEN KANE. Thereby adding to the strange bond between Welles and Fields, who used the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves to sign THE BANK DICK.

About the only scene of family harmony is the picnic, where the Bissonettes wantonly destroy the grounds of a rich estate. Fiona, gasping for breath, wondered why Fields cramming crackers and a sandwich into his bulging face was SO funny. There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Is this America’s first, mild gross-out joke?

The Simpsons suddenly seemed like a descendant of this. Homer is a more aggressive Harold Bissonette, Bart is a more charming Norman. Marge and Lisa are no Amelia and Mildred, but the sense of the central family as fundamentally blighted, which comes into play occasionally on Matt Groening’s show, feels connected to the glorious misanthropy here, particularly during the picnic, where Fields’ mild-mannered pop suddenly seems as much a force of destruction as his awful wife and offspring.

Nobody’s as apocalyptic in impact as Mr. Muckle the blind man, though, who sweeps through the grocery store like a hurricane (too soon?). He’s also profoundly deaf, of course, and this is merely more reason to fear him. Several things seem clear, and they all help Fields’ purpose in inspiring comedic rather than sympathetic reactions to Herr M.

  1. Muckle’s foul temper and rudeness have nothing to do with his handicap. He’s just an awful man who happens to be disabled. He seems only semi-aware that he’s disabled. His crotchetiness is more the result of age, but he was probably always kind of nasty.
  2. Bissonette’s terror on seeing Muckle’s approach tells us that these rampages are a regular, at least weekly occurrence. The grocery store plays Tokyo to Muckle’s Gojira (too soon?).
  3. Bissonette’s deeper terror when Mr. Muckle marches off into traffic shows his decency, and turns that into a pathetic comic trait also — a more normal response after what we’ve just seen might be to pray Muckle falls under the oncoming tyres and is extirpated at once.

A shame we never get to see Mr. Muckle chew his gum, and thus become unintelligible as well as sightless and unhearing, the full slapstick Helen Keller (too soon?).